Mexican food, around these parts, has been known to engender a healthy amount of controversy. To broach the topic of Mexican food, in certain circles, is to initiate earnest debate about what constitutes good, honest-to-God “real” Mexican food. Is your Mexican food “authentic,” or is it watered-down and gringofied? Is it “done right,” like your abuelita from Jalisco or Michoacan or Sinaloa used to make it? If you’re talking regional cooking, does it convey the true essence of Sonoran, Oaxacan, Yucatán (or insert your favored region here) tradition? Is it simple and “rustic,” or cutting-edge and modernist? And is one approach, in this place and time, better than the other?
You could power a small wind farm with all the breathy energy spent on meandering, hand-wringing discussions about the virtues of this style of Mexican cooking over that one. In a world where the questions remain unsettled, where Mexican food feels as diverse and impossible to define as the country itself, maybe it would prove more useful, instead, to take note of the food at the end of your fork: Is it vivid and flavorful? Does it make you crave more?
Recently, over the course of three dinners at El Palacio Mexican Restaurant, a comfortable if not quite palatial suburban Mexican restaurant located in Chandler, the answer to these last two questions was, for the most part, no.
On the surface, El Palacio, part of a small, family-owned regional chain rooted in Mohave County, has all the markings of a fine neighborhood destination. The lobby is decorated with brassy plaques and ribbons from local food festivals — Best Salsa, Best Guacamole, among others accolades — and the restaurant’s chef-owner, Anthony Serrano, is a regular on the local and national cooking competition circuit.
Inside, the dimly lit restaurant offers a healthy dose of the kitsch that adorns so many chain Mexican restaurants — the dining room looks as if a Southwestern-themed rummage sale coughed up on the walls. But silk flower wreaths and cheesy Mexican tchotchkes are oftentimes a fair trade for a complimentary bowl of hot tortilla chips and happy-hour-priced margaritas.
And, during a recent happy hour, the house margarita stung just right, in that special way that only reposado tricked out with lime and sea salt can make you grateful to be well past 21 years of age.
The complimentary chips, though, on more than one occasion, were memorable only because they tasted noticeably stale and faintly floury. On my first visit to El Palacio, the funny-tasting chips were also sort of a prelude to a flurry of relatively minor, service-oriented transgressions: A dinner companion flagged down our server to request a fresh batch of chips — our server shrugged apologetically, but a fresh batch of chips never materialized. A small lamp flickered on and off in our booth, casting a weird, blinking white light over the table; nobody on staff ever bothered to fix it.
When I asked our server about the restaurant’s new fall menu — I had received an e-mail promoting the debut of an updated menu and had come to El Palacio expressly to sample the new menu items — the server stared at me blankly, then told me he would ask somebody about that. It took a couple more tries before someone finally came out and told me that the new menu items were not yet available.
It takes more than a few stale chips and lightly inhospitable gestures, though, to dampen a genuinely great meal. It’s the food that matters, right? And with an impressively sprawling menu — seven pages crammed with all manner of dishes, many of them labeled award-winning recipes — cobbling together a pretty decent dinner at El Palacio seems, for the most part, like a plausible endeavor.
And there is nothing truly wrong, for instance, with a starter like the house guacamole, which is fresh and subtly seasoned, and served inside the modern wonder that is a deep-fried tortilla bowl. It leans toward being chunky in texture, and comes nicely dappled with freshly diced tomatoes. It’s good and fresh — but not so good that you could not easily replicate it at home.
More creative starters, though, are clunky and less appetizing. Take the Donkey Bites appetizer — faintly sandy, crusty cheese-and-chorizo bites, breaded in finely ground corn flakes and deep-fried until they resemble something like oversize, flattened chicken nuggets. They are paired with a small bowl of queso sauce, which is faintly gritty, like hummus kissed with Velveeta. Deep-fried pockets of molten cheese — what could go wrong here? In practice, though, the Donkey Bites turn out to be rather oily, and pretty dull in flavor.
Then there’s the Fiesta cheese crisp, classic Arizona-Mexican restaurant fare, an oversized tortilla disk glued down to the plate with bright orange cheese and generous amounts of sour cream and pico. It was, on a recent visit, far too oily to finish.
From the “specialty” dinner menu, there are Tex-Mex staples like fajitas. They are available in various configurations, including carne asada, carnitas, and grilled chicken. The chicken version is neither terrible nor exceptional. The hunks of meat are tender and well-seasoned, and served with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and zucchini, the veggies caramelized down to sweet, tender slivers. It is pleasant enough to wrap the scraps of meat and veggies in the warm, thick flour tortillas provided. But there is nothing so exceptional about the dish that you will crave it, or think about it, on the ride home.
There are some bona fide disappointments. The house mole poblano may demoralize you nearly as much as the recent election cycle: The mole is thin as soup, palpably sloshing around in its white tureen, and overly sweet. A decent helping of refried beans and Mexican rice on the side do nothing to make up for the lack of depth and heft in this near-sacrilegious rendition of Mexico’s holy mestizo dish.
A house specialty known as the Mexican Flag — three enchiladas designed to emulate the red, white, and green emblem of Mexican national pride — is markedly better. The chicken enchilada is moist and nicely seasoned, and the red ranchera-sauce pork enchilada is nicely succulent, but the red sauce on the machaca-beef enchilada offers little hint of seasoning or spice.
Another specialty, the Queso-dilla, is intriguing, but may remind you of something conjured up during a late-night college smoke-out session — it’s designed to maximize flavor, but perhaps not entirely well thought out. The dish is essentially a quesadilla rolled into a burrito, but on the plate, the dish devolves into a flavorless, mushy, queso-heavy pile of starch and cream.
New Mexico enchiladas — two open-faced enchiladas topped with fried eggs — yield two faintly cooked corn tortillas, slathered with red sauce and some cheddar cheese. The sauce is most disappointing of all, only vaguely seasoned and devoid of any robust flavor. If you grew up in a New Mexican household, there’s a decent chance you will shudder at the total dearth of tongue-enlivening spice on the plate.
From the seafood and egg menu, the Del Mar special is another house creation, this one featuring a flauta and a seafood enchilada, the latter stuffed with pollack and tiny baby shrimp. The whole dish is smothered in sauce and cheese. Cheese, and a house herb-inflected sour cream, seem to be the calling card of El Palacio dishes. And so, the seafood inevitably succumbs to the forces of glossy cheese and melted-down sour cream, so that all that’s left is a lactose-intolerant diner’s worst nightmare.
For dessert, an order of the interesting-sounding Banana Taco ends up being a deep-fried flour tortilla, halfheartedly stuffed with a single caramelized banana, and embellished with lavish amounts of whipped cream and surreptitious zig-zags of chocolate syrup. The whole thing is weirdly clunky — trying to figure out how to eat it proves more stressful than entertaining — and the flavors are almost oppressively sweet.
The same description applies to another lackluster dessert, the so-called Frutitas, which are wonton skins filled with fruit pie filling, then rolled into cigar-shaped rolls embellished with a blend of cinnamon and sugar, and deep-fried until they emerge, vaguely chewy. Like so much else at El Palacio, the Frutitas feel slapdash and a little too careless in terms of basic design. It might take only a couple of bites before you realize, maybe it simply wasn’t made for you.
El Palacio Mexican Restaurant
2950 East Germann Road, Chandler
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Donkey Bites $9.25
Mole poblano $12.72
Mexican Flag $9.25